Shh. Move quietly. Speak softly. At night, these woods might seem quiet and serene, all luxe, calme et volupté. But around here, appearances deceive. That’s because monsters dwell here. One band of them might have a silly-sounding name–ee-van-jellicles. I see you chuckling at the sound. Trust me though: these beasts can claw and rend an unwary traveler! Thankfully, these monsters are very easy to fool. See, one of their leaders, Russell Moore, gave away the game recently. And now we can use his foolishly-spoken words to pass through this blighted land in safety. Come with me. I’ll show you how to fool a monster tonight.
Russell Moore, At It Again.
Russell Moore works as one of the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). He heads the SBC’s egregiously-misnamed Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), a powerful subgroup within the denomination. We’ve discussed Russell Moore in the past around here.
As career evangelicals go, Russell Moore is a deeply political animal with a strong self-preservation drive. And like all the rest of his peers in SBC leadership, he’s never met a fundagelical talking point or conspiracy theory that he couldn’t embrace somehow.
He made the news a while ago for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency–because evangelicals’ Great Orange Hope was nowhere near enough of a culture warrior for him. Dude simply misread the room, and did so spectacularly hard. Somehow, though, he evaded the worst of his tribe’s “Christian love” in retaliation. Having failed to get the tribe on board with his criticisms, he apologized lots and lots, then began rebuilding his power base again.
Yep, a man of great moral backbone, this one!
Russell Moore doesn’t so much rule his denomination’s dark forest as mutter from its deepest shadows, then cringe and twist away and snivel if its true masters raise a hand to slap him down.
The ERLC’s Worst Failing.
Under Russell Moore’s watch, the so-called “ethics” arm of the SBC committed its worst and most shocking failure: it willfully ignored a huge sex-abuse scandal building in the denomination, despite many warnings from many different people. Then, it completely and totally failed to respond even meaninglessly to that crisis until the secular press forced its hand. For all his imagined lofty superiority over the Trumpkins in the tribe, Russell Moore completely spaced this one!
But once forced to act, the SBC always puts on a very good show of pretending to care and wanting to fix their mistakes.
To wit: This past April, the ERLC decided to “overhaul” its October conference in light of that sex-abuse scandal. They already had another theme set up, “Courage,” but then the scandal came to light. As Moore put it,
“As we thought about this, we realized if we want to talk about courage, then we owed it to our churches and the world around us to talk about courage in light of this area of great need.”
They decided to call the conference “Caring Well: Equipping the Church to Confront the Abuse Crisis .” A few days ago, that conference occurred. There, Moore gave its opening speech, which he titled “The Church’s Response to Abuse is a Gospel Issue.”
The title alone tells us that he wants his tribe to take this topic seriously.
A gospel issue is peak Christianese. It’s a very Jesus-flavored way to say something all Christians should take super-duper seriously.
Christians have used the phrase for a very long time, though exactly what the “something” is varies quite a lot. By the term, most Christians mean that whatever the “something” is, it’s instrumental to their understanding and practice of Christianity. And that means that all Christians everywhere need to be paying close attention to that “something,” because if they get it wrong there’s only one penalty in Jesus-Land!
Tim Challies, another leader in Christianity, has provided us with an impressive list of stuff that’s been called a gospel issue in the past in his tribe:
The doctrine of election, the treatment of animals, creation care and conservation, racial reconciliation, racial diversity, abortion, social justice, gender roles, love, transgenderism, marriage, religious liberty, the historicity of Adam, global debt, forgiveness, anxiety, church health, and vocation. [See endnote for some definitions.]
Indeed, pretty much any axe-to-grind counts as a gospel issue. (However, he left out tithing.)
Consequently, Christians weaponize the phrase all the time. In their hands, it becomes a free Everyone-Must-Listen-To-Me-NOW card.
“Horror and Enormity.”
Having gotten his tribe’s attention, Moore told his audience that thousands of people had faced abuse and exploitation within SBC churches:
“When we see the horror and enormity of those numbers, we ask ourselves: How much do we not know about? How many of those survivors do we not see or recognize?”
He described a “sense of invulnerability” as a driver of the scandal:
“It’s this sense of, ‘Well, it couldn’t happen in our church, or it couldn’t happen in our kind of church. It happens in churches with that sort of theology.'”
And he called out critics saying that the victim count is so small that the SBC doesn’t actually face a real “crisis” at all:
“Your sense of invulnerability is what is killing you,” he said. “Your claim to see is what is blinding you . . . If you think that responding to church sexual abuse is a distraction from the mission of the church, you do not understand the mission of the church.”
Weirdly, Jesus isn’t telling these TRUE CHRISTIANS™ to make sure their groups are safe and nurturing. But wait: there’s more.
So Spiritual Discernment. Much Wow.
It’s no secret that churches hide a huge number of predators in their ranks. All manner of criminals belong to churches. Often, these predators even perform prominent roles within them. Distressingly often, predators even lead the church itself.
And Russell Moore can’t figure out who they are. They’ve fooled him.
He ain’t alone in that inability, either. Christians constantly express shock and dismay when one of their peers or leaders turns out to be a predator. But he seemed like such a good person! they cry, wringing their hands. How could we not have known?
They’re quite right to ask this question.
They think a real live god talks to them all the time and wants nothing more than to nurture them and keep them safe (so he can fleece, milk, and eat them later, natch). But reality shows us clearly: this god ain’t doing anything to protect anybody in any way. All too often, his hand-chosen deputy shepherds are unwilling to do the job. And in any case, they are completely incapable of doing it.
Worse, Russell Moore just admitted the reasons for his shocking inability even to detect predators within his own sheepfold.
The Wolves Within the Fold.
In his speech, Russell Moore declared that the people responsible for all this abusin’ are almost “impossible to detect” because they display “perfectly orthodox theology behind which they hide some horrible, horrible behavior.”
“There are some people who are able to answer every Bible question, some people who are able to volunteer for every active service, who are nonetheless part of the flock not in order to build up the body, but in order to prey on it. They may know theology better than anybody else, but they abuse that trust.”
And he doesn’t even appear to realize exactly what he just revealed in that one lean paragraph!
His denomination’s current president, J.D. Greear, reinforced that revelation in his speech a few hours later at the same conference:
Abusers “can be disarming and downright charming,” Greear said. “And they thrive in environments of naive assumptions and no accountability, where stereotypes, rather than sober thinking, control the day.”
Unfortunately, the SBC’s leaders built their broken system from building blocks made of stereotypes, naive assumptions, and lack of accountability.
How These “Men of God” Keep Getting Fooled.
Yes, these predators trick SBC leaders all the time!
They do it by following the SBC’s rules and flattering its leaders.
- Predators memorize Bible verses and learn rote answers to standard-issue questions. SBC leaders give rewards (attention, praise, lucrative positions of power, etc) to those who can perform these mindless tasks. They do not value independent thinking–instead, they vilify and denigrate it.
- Predators volunteer. Churches rely more and more on volunteer labor. Without it, they collapse. Volunteers can put church leaders over a barrel, forcing them to put up with shenanigans they might not otherwise. More than that, however, church leaders tend to put way more trust in the people helping them run their churches.
- And predators learn theology. That’s upper-level Christian thinking, as far as it goes in evangelicalism anyway. Generally, theology in those circles consists of especially-convoluted doctrine memorization and apologetics. It takes time and study to pull it off well. But a dedicated predator goes to that effort. Pastors see someone taking so much trouble to learn the stuff they spent a fortune learning in Bible college, and it impresses the hell out of ’em.
Now, you might have noticed one incredible problem here.
Actual obedient, compliant, good little Southern Baptists all do exactly the same things as the people only pretending to be obedient, compliant, good little Southern Baptists.
The Potemkin Village Facade.
This forest we speak of today? Its glistening, bitter-smelling trees conceal a dreadful secret.
The SBC values surface-level and transactional behaviors. In a very real way, these behaviors and the community’s valuation of them work together to create a Potemkin village facade. They mask decay and misery behind a bunch of brightly-painted wooden cutouts. The denizens of the forest learn to live as if the facade were real. The true-blue ones think that it is. And the rest pretend.
It’s not even technically difficult to pretend. All of the behaviors leaders demand of members are relatively easy to fulfill–and equally fake. Stretch that halfhearted, crying-inside smile wide enough and show enough teeth, and the masters of the broken system announce themselves content. They’ve never seen a real one, so they won’t know the difference anyway–or care.
As a result, deconverted ex-Christians go undetected for decades in these churches. Even a deconverted pastor can often trick the flocks until he escapes. And evil-hearted predators stay hidden till death or arrest. Until one of these doppelgangers does something off-script, literally nobody will know they aren’t all-in and true-blue. Their “shepherd,” Jesus, certainly won’t tell anyone the truth.
Y’all, that’s really all a wolf needs.
Well, that and one other thing.
The Greater Need.
Predators need, even more than a sheep-owner who isn’t paying any attention at all, shepherds who value their own self-interest over the safety of their flocks.
These shepherds know their rewards come from selling products to sheep, not from pleasing the owner of the sheep or tending the sheep themselves. So in reality, Russell Moore and his fellow leaders and ministers are salespeople, not shepherds. Their master isn’t the owner of the sheep, but the owners of the fields themselves.
In his speech, Russell Moore accidentally lets slip that he’s aware that way too many people in his denomination aren’t actually shepherds:
But the problem in the Church is not just wolves; it’s also the “hired hands,” Moore said, explaining: “Hired hands aren’t the ones ‘preying upon sheep;’ they’re the ones who seem to be there to protect the sheep, but when trouble comes, they get scared and they run. . . A church that will say, ‘we’re not going to extend a lot of effort on this’ is a church that is not acting like a shepherd, but like a hired hand.”
He’s half right. In truth, all of the shepherds in this extended metaphor are actually hired hands, though plenty try hard to do better.
And these hired hands are not so much shepherding sheep as they are trying to attract as many sheep to their grazing fields as they can so they can fleece, milk, and eat them.
And it turns out that these distinctions make all the difference in the world when it comes to how these self-proclaimed shepherds behave when their sheep encounter real danger.
When the Shepherds Don’t Shepherd.
The SBC’s leaders stand accused of shuffling their predators around and hiding those predators’ crimes from congregations for years, just like their bedmates in Catholic leadership. Russell Moore wants us to think he’s totally blameless, that he just got all bamboozled and snookered by all those mean ole tricksy predators in his denomination. His pal Al Mohler insists the same thing. So does J.D. Greear.
But none of them are innocent.
They saw, they heard, and they did nothing for as long as they humanly could. Victims and advocacy groups tried for years to tell the SBC’s leaders that they had a huge problem on their hands. And the SBC’s leaders smeared, vilified, and pushed away those people.
One, Paige Patterson, even said one advocacy group contained “evil-doers” who were “just as reprehensible” as the accused serial sex abuser they were trying to hold accountable! He did it because that accused abuser was his protege and friend. As well, his own closet contained some horrifying skellingtons of its own.
In similar fashion and for years, SBC leaders protected their own and their pals’ interests and their tribe’s reputation above all other considerations. Whenever their own self-interest butted up against abuse victims, those victims always lost.
Why the SBC’s Leaders Always Choose Themselves Over the Flocks.
The SBC sells a product, membership in their denomination, that doesn’t do what its hucksters promise it can. It does not make its adherents better human beings than others can be. Nor does it allow its groups to function more harmoniously or safely than others can.
Much of that failure centers around the fact that the secret ingredient in their product, an omnimax god who loves them and has their best interests at heart, doesn’t exist either. If it were software, it’d be vaporware. It exists only conceptually, not in reality.
Between these two catastrophic dealbreakers, the people and groups purchasing the SBC’s product will not be able to get from their starting points to their desired finish line with it.
The presence in Christianity of so many predators, all roaming freely for many years, doing so much damage, and finally being taken semi-seriously only after an outside force made it impossible for the SBC to ignore them any longer, speaks to that glaring truth. Bad apples might be an occasional problem for any group no matter how great. Obviously, yes. But if Southern Baptists’ product actually worked, then such bad apples would be rare indeed, not a systemic, entrenched, impossible-to-resolve issue.
No, Russell Moore and his pals knew that if people found out just how bad the problem was, they’d immediately realize that the SBC’s product doesn’t work and they’d reject it. So the SBC’s leaders have always done their level best to silence news of their scandals, to intimidate victims into silence or drive them away, and to pretend all was well behind their bright Potemkin facade.
And in the doing, probably without even noticing the transition rippling under their skins, Russell Moore and his pals became monsters themselves.
Eventually, that’s what happens to the people who protect monsters.
Nobody’s Actually Asking This.
Russell Moore ended his speech at the ERLC’s conference by speaking for “the world,” which is Christianese for everyone who isn’t a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ like himself.
“There are horrific and satanic presences out there in the world and hiding within the church,” he concluded. “What the world is asking is not whether or not there are wolves or thieves or robbers; they know that. What the world is asking is, ‘Is there a shepherd? And is he good?’”
Of course, nobody’s asking this at all. All on its own, Moore’s denomination offers plenty of evidence contradicting Christians’ claims of being protected and nurtured by a divine shepherd. If we’re asking anything, perhaps it’s this:
Why do these TRUE CHRISTIANS™ seem so singularly incapable of meeting even the most basic requirements of a good, functional, cohesive group: keeping its most vulnerable members safe from any harm done by other members?
And I hope I’ve answered that question.
How to Fool a Monster.
I promised to show you something at the top of this post. Here is the fulfillment of my promise:
When you’re traveling through an ee-van-jellicle-infested dark forest at night, you can easily fool the monsters hunting in it by pretending to be a monster yourself. The real monsters want to be fooled, so you’ll find it quite easy to do.
Pretend to follow the monsters’ rules and believe their ideology. Praise the monsters, using the language they’ve created to do it. Tell them they’re gracious, puissant, wise, and correct. Sing about how the monsters’ overlord loves them best. Assure them they’ll soon defeat all the other monsters. Say nothing off-script or unexpected, never rock the boat, and never criticize your Dear Leaders or hold them accountable in any way. Attend them as often as they think you should.
Act like you believe every single thing they say and thank them for saying all of it.
Prepare your escape path with care, if you can.
Why to Fool a Monster.
Predators wear this mask because they want access to the rewards and the freely-grazing prey the tribe offers to its powerful members.
Ex-Christians do it out of fear of the monsters’ “Christian love,” so they can pass through the monsters’ dark forest undetected on their way to safety.
And Russell Moore and his tribe of monsters can’t tell the difference between them and Christians who really are on the level. It’s all thanks to the system they set up decades ago to enrich themselves at everyone else’s expense.
The only way this story could end is right here, with them exposed as having always protected monsters over victims.
NEXT UP: Evangelicals keep asking the completely wrong question anyway. Then, the horror of living in the enemy’s warren and paying his price. See you soon!
Some select Christianese definitions:
- The doctrine of election: the Calvinist notion that the Christian god does everything that he does because he jolly well wants to do it and always intended to do it, not because anything forces his hand. This idea particularly applies to which humans he allows to go to Heaven.
- Racial reconciliation: the process of hoping very hard to eradicate hardcore racism from Christian groups.
- Religious liberty: trampling non-Christians, silencing them, criminalizing speech critical of Christianity, ripping human rights and civil liberties from non-Christians, and seizing all political and cultural power so evangelicals can finally have their happy little Republic of Gilead on Earth.
- The historicity of Adam: Young-Earth Creationism. If evangelicals don’t have a real live honest-to-goodness once-really-totes-existed Adam, then their whole paradigm collapses. A historical Adam matters as much to them as a historical Jesus does, and for exactly the same reasons.
- Church health: how cohesive a particular church group is, whether it’s growing or shrinking, and how connected it is to its local community.
- Vocation: becoming and staying a minister (and how ministry itself is conducted), as well as how Christians sell their religion to others and indoctrinate new recruits.
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